What Is a Blacklist?

A blacklist is a list of people, organizations, or countries that are being shunned or excluded by others because they are alleged to have engaged in behavior or activities that are deemed unacceptable or unethical.

A blacklist is a form of retaliation that is usually intended to create financial hardship for those who are named, Blacklisted individuals may be effectively barred from doing business or getting jobs.

Blacklisting has a long history but in modern times it is often a tool used by governments to make economic sanctions effective by publicly listing people, organizations, and nations that should be avoided.

Key Takeaways

  • A blacklist targets people or entities that are seen as disruptive or undesirable.
  • Its purpose is to isolate those listed and to prevent them from doing business effectively.
  • Historical blacklists have targeted union organizers and alleged communist sympathizers in the U.S.
  • Today's blacklists are more likely to be databases managed by governments imposing economic sanctions on global bad actors involved in money laundering or drug trafficking.
  • Individuals who fear being unfairly blacklisted by employers or creditors may be advised to run a background check on themselves through an online service.

Understanding the Blacklist

The term blacklist has been traced to as early as the 1610s. People named on a blacklist were deemed to be suspicious in some way and were to be avoided. By the late 19th century the names of workers known to be involved in union organizing were circulated to potential employers on a blacklist. The purpose was not only to punish unionists but to silence them.

Today, a blacklist might be compiled by any type of organization from a political or religious group to a business or professional association. It might be made public to increase the pressure on those listed or be circulated confidentially to those who might act upon the information, cutting ties to the blacklisted people or businesses.

Government Blacklists

The U.S. government maintains several lists that could reasonably be called blacklists. They publicly identify individuals or entities that are restricted or banned from conducting business in the U.S. or with U.S. entities.

  • The U.S. Treasury Department maintains a blacklist of individuals, companies, and other groups who are "blocked," or prohibited from doing business with U.S. residents and businesses. The people and entities on the list may be associated with a nation or an industry that has been sanctioned by the U.S. or may be engaged in terrorist activities or narcotics trafficking. This list is called the Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons List and is available online.
  • The U.S. Department of State maintains a blacklist called State Sponsors of Terrorism. The list identifies nations that are prohibited from importing arms or receiving certain types of foreign assistance from the U.S. In 2022, the list included Cuba, North Korea, Iran, and Syria.
  • The U.S. Department of Commerce maintains The Entity List of individuals, companies, and other organizations that are required to undergo special licensing before exporting or importing products to or from the U.S. These entities have been identified as being potentially involved in activities that threaten the national security or foreign policy interests of the U.S.

A Historical Blacklist

In the days before electronic databases, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers consulted a printed Black List of Persons Engaged in Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs.

This handbook contained photographs and fingerprints of known criminals to keep an eye out for at the borders.

IP Address Blacklists

The IP address blacklist is a network security tool used to block access to or from internet addresses that are deemed problematic.

An IP address can wind up on a blacklist because it has hosted unacceptable content, such as pornography, or because it contains code that might be harmful or a virus that might spread.

Addresses are also blacklisted to block email deliveries from addresses and domains known to be sources of spam, fraud, or cybercrime.

IP address blacklisting is also known as IP blocklisting.

Blacklist vs. Graylist

The term gray list is generally used to indicate a lesser offense or a less severe punishment than blacklisting entails.

For example, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) publishes both a blacklist and a "grey list" of nations that have not acted effectively to curtail money laundering and the financing of terrorism.

Iran and North Korea are the only nations named on the blacklist in 2022.

The FATF greylist is a much longer list of nations that are deemed deficient in preventing money laundering or the financing of terrorism but have committed to improvement. In 2022, the greylist contained the names of some 23 nations from Albania to Yemen. It is formally called the "high-risk and other monitored jurisdictions" list.

The Blacklist Effect

Nations on the greylist may find it difficult to obtain assistance from organizations such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. It has an adverse impact on their standing globally.

Nations on the blacklist are likely to find it difficult to do business with the outside world on any terms. They are likely to face economic sanctions from the 38 member nations of the OECD and their businesses are unlikely to be well received by financial institutions in the member nations.

Special Considerations

Although most countries have blacklists of organizations and suppliers who are not to be trusted, the threat of blacklisting is usually effective.

This is particularly true during international trade squabbles. For example, in 2019, the U.S. government placed an export ban on China-based Huawei, leading other nations to also ban Huawei from certain procurement contracts.

In response, China threatened to blacklist all the companies of foreign countries that enacted a Huawei ban. Despite the threats, these types of disputes are often resolved without having entire nations put on blacklists.

The Credit Blacklist Myth

A common misconception concerns the purported existence of a credit blacklist to deny loans to consumers with poor or spotty credit histories.

There is no such list. Every person who has ever obtained credit has a credit score on file with up to three major credit reporting agencies. The score will fall within a range that categorizes the person as "very poor" to "exceptional" at repaying debt in the past.

The score determines whether a consumer's application for new credit will be approved, and what interest rate will be applied to the loan. At worst, a person with a "very poor" credit rating will have to undergo some credit repair work in order to obtain new credit at a reasonable rate.

Real-World Examples

The blacklist, formal or informal, has been used as a weapon against people for a variety of reasons, political and practical.

Union Supporters Blacklist

It is illegal for a company to blacklist, or refuse to hire, an applicant based on knowledge or a suspicion that the person has an affiliation or a sympathy with workplace unionization. That law did not exist in the early days of unionization when participants in the labor movement faced retaliation by companies, including blacklisting.

As union membership declined in the past several decades, so did complaints of job candidates blacklisted for their ties to unions.

In fact, a study by Work In Progress, the American Sociological Association blog, found that union-affiliated applicants and applicants with no union affiliation were equally likely to get called back for an interview for an entry-level front-line job in Chicago.

It is a violation of federal unfair labor practices law for a union to maintain a blacklist of workers who refuse to join a union.

Communist Blacklist

In the 1930s, membership in the Communist Party was quite fashionable in some circles. By the late 1940s and well into the 1950s, it was considered grossly un-American.

With the Cold War in full swing, a Congressional committee called the House Un-American Activities Committee began investigating the political beliefs of a number of prominent Americans, including many in the entertainment industry.

Accusations of subversion and even treason swirled. People who refused to cooperate by naming names were prosecuted and even jailed.

The crusade was taken up in the Senate as well, most notoriously by Senator Joseph McCarthy and the committee he chaired. The focus of the committee was on the alleged infiltration of the U.S. government and military by communists and spies for the Soviet Union. The public hearings, known as the Army-McCarthy hearings, riveted the public.

McCarthy was eventually censured by the Senate for making unfounded public accusations against hundreds of people. By that time, official or unofficial blacklisting had damaged the careers of many of McCarthy's victims.

Dalton Trumbo and Ring Lardner, Jr. were among the writers who were blacklisted after refusing to testify to the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Hollywood Blacklist

The House Un-American Activities Committee was particularly focused on rooting out supposed communist sympathizers in the entertainment industry, which then as now was seen as a hotbed of liberalism.

Many of the biggest names in Hollywood were dragged to Washington, where they were grilled on their own political beliefs and those of their friends and associates.

Among those who refused to cooperate were those known as the Hollywood 10. These screenwriters and directors went to jail for refusing to testify.

The Hollywood 10 were officially blacklisted. They were banned from employment at the Hollywood studios.

The blacklist was not officially lifted until the 1960s, years after the hysteria had died down. Some of the Hollywood 10 continued to work, using pseudonyms.

Questions & Answers

Why Is It Called a Blacklist?

People viewed as troublesome or non-conforming have been placed on blacklists, official or unofficial, for centuries. Their names are blackened. They should be avoided and treated as if they did not exist.

In practice, blacklisting is an economic punishment meant to exclude the people named from enjoying the benefit of doing business in the community.

What Happens When a Person Is Blacklisted?

Blacklisting is intended to deprive a person of the ability to make a living. Professional ties are cut. The person's reputation and status in the community are damaged.

In the long run, the blacklist itself may be discredited. The Hollywood 10, blacklisted for refusing to name names to the House Un-American Activities Committee, were eventually lionized for their stance.

How Can I Check If I Have Been Blacklisted?

Reports of blacklists, official or unofficial, circulate in most professions. Most are probably untrue. Writing for a resume site, a recruiter maintained that there is no blacklist in her field and no need for one. You're more likely to be sunk by a bad interview or an unfavorable reference than by a blacklist.

Some people fear a less official form of blacklisting if they have left a previous job under a cloud or made enemies along the way. One way to find out if they're right is for them to run a background check on themselves to see if anything negative pops up. Many web-based services are available to do the job.

Article Sources
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  1. Etymonline. "blacklist (n.)"

  2. U.S. Department of the Treasury. "Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons List."

  3. U.S. Department of State. "State Sponsors of Terrorism."

  4. U.S. Department of Commerce. "Entity List."

  5. U.S. Customs and Border Protection. "A Real Government Black List."

  6. Comply Advantage. "FATF Blacklists and Greylists."

  7. Work in Progress. "Are union supporters blacklisted from hiring?"

  8. JRank: Law. "Blacklist."

  9. History. "Congress Investigates Communists in Hollywood."

  10. U.S. Senate. "McCarthy and Army-McCarthy Hearings."

  11. History. "Hollywood Ten."

  12. Resume Insider. "Am I on a recruiting blacklist?"

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